London History Bulletin – January 24

This London History Bulletin remembers a forgotten London heroine, Xenia Noelle Field, who died on this day, 1998.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

She made the world a better place. 

I love that phrase. I love it because it’s quiet and modest and unassuming. Almost shy. She made the world a better place. Quiet, modest, unassuming almost shy – but it’s the litmus test. The fireworks of celebrity and fame – does it pass that litmus test? Has Kim Kardashian made the world a better place? Or Rupert Murdoch? Or Crispin Odey? (Look him up if you don’t know who he is.) Or any number of politicians?

But Xenia Noelle Field – born Xenia Noelle Lowinsky – she passes the test. She made the world a better place. That in itself is reason enough for saying the London History Bulletin for January 24th – we’re dedicating it to Xenia Noelle Lowinsky Field. And really, truth be told, I’d be tempted to give her the gong of a London History Bulletin on the strength of that name alone. But seriously, the other thing is, she’s forgotten. And she shouldn’t be. So we’re going to do something about it. And why today? Because Xenia Noelle Lowinsky Field died on January 24th, 1998.

Ok, so how did she make the world a better place? She was a prison reformer. In the early 1950s she initiated Christmas concerts in the London prisons. Over and over again she was able to persuade leading performers to go into prisons and put on a show for the inmates. She also began the Field lectures. She got prominent speakers to go into London prisons and give talks. And she persuaded the Salvation Army to set up the first bail hostel in Britain. Before that, homeless people awaiting trial were invariably held in prison.

All good. But there’s more. She was also an accomplished horticulturalist. A great gardener. For 40 years she wrote a much-loved weekly gardening column for the Daily Mirror. And she wrote a couple of books on the subject. She was a mainstay of the Royal Horticultural Society.  Prisons and gardening. I think there’s probably a fit there. A lot of people in prison are like seeds who had the misfortune to land on stony soil.

And you know something, advanced age – great longevity – is also a case of a flower that’s no longer in loam, it’s on stony soil. And sure enough Xenia Noelle Field gave funds for post-graduate study in that field. 

Anything else? Yes, Xenia Noelle Lowinsky Field was born on Christmas Day – ergo her name. Christmas Day in 1894. So, dying, in Goldsborough Nursing Home on Ladbroke Road in Kensington on January 24th, 1998, Xenia Noelle was in her 104th year. She was just over 700 days away from having lived in three centuries. Queen Victoria was on the throne when she was born, Queen Elizabeth II when she died. So that’s six monarchs. Even more telling in that regard, Prime Ministers. Gladstone was prime minister in the year she was born, Blair in the year she died. And between those two bookends, 21 other prime ministers. To say nothing of two world wars, the Spanish flu, the atom bomb, decolonisation, thje Cold War, the assassination of two presidents, a man on the moon, the worldwide web…

That’s a lot of world. And you made it a better place, Xenia Noelle. London prisons and the flowers behind your home in Holland Park… Yours weren’t the largest gardens, Xenia Noelle, but you tended them well.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 24th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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